India is not a Google Republic: BJP MP Tarun Vijay on the Geospatial Bill

In an interview with The Wire, the Rajya Sabha MP talks on issues of data sovereignty and digital patriotism, and says that the government is receptive to feedback.

Net Patriotism: BJP MP Tarun Vijay, Credit: Facebook, Tarun Vijay

Net Patriotism: BJP MP Tarun Vijay, Credit: Facebook, Tarun Vijay

The draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, a piece of proposed legislation that seeks to govern and establish ownership over the country’s geospatial information, has sparked much discussion and concern over the last week. Discussions were primarily over issues of national security, the compliance of online mapping services and technology companies, and concern over whether the bill has been drafted in such a broad manner it would do more harm than good.

The roots of this new geospatial bill can be traced, in part at least, to a stand-off between Google and Indian law enforcement authorities in 2013, when the search engine’s “mapathon contest” drew criticism after crowdsourcing the mapping of Pathankot. One of the people leading the charge in favour of stricter rules around online mapping was BJP MP Tarun Vijay.  In an interview with The Wire, the Rajya Sabha MP talks on issues of data sovereignty and emphasises that the government is receptive to feedback. He also plans on suggesting that the government should hold a public stakeholder meeting in order to better accept inputs and produce a well-rounded bill. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Could you place this Geospatial Information Regulation Bill in context for me? You’ve had run-ins with Google Maps in 2013 over concerns of national security..

The Internet colonialists are stealing our data wealth. It is our wealth. In the pre-Independence time, colonialists looted the Kohinoor… and all our jewels. These people, they take away all the data from India. And they don’t allow the Indian agencies to monitor or to have any control on what essentially belongs to us.

Now – I have no problem that Google and other mapping agencies, which are giving a great service to the Indian net users. We are not in clash with what they are providing.

And there are many internet users who say “Hey they [Google and other Internet companies] are doing such a good job. You are raising issues like a bullock-cart days person.” But they forget that this nation belongs to us. It [India] is not a Google republic. So they have to abide by the laws of the land. If somebody thinks the laws are bad… then have a negotiation and try to change the laws. The arrogance and belligerence of these Internet colonialists takes strength from the strength and arrogance of their source country.

We have seen how America’s NSA…I mean it’s completely gone public. What they are doing to us and what they are doing to other countries. So should we allow these instruments of America’s National Security Agency to function in India without any checks? If they say they are providing a great service like Google Earth, they are not doing charity. They are making money from Indian market, which is the biggest market for them.

So my plea is have Indian data for India alone. Let Indian agencies have a complete control on our data.

Protecting a country’s data is a principle of data sovereignty. But is possible to take it too far where it becomes a form of digital nationalism that hurts more than helping?

[I want to] make Bhuvan (ISRO’s Google Earth type software) more powerful. More net friendly and user friendly… better than Google Earth. Now, unless you do this, nobody is going to use Bhuvan. You may have a lot of advertisements [for it] but it won’t help. If somebody says “hey this is net patriotism”, there is nothing wrong in that.

This country belongs to communists who hate patriotic feelings. This country belongs to the Samajwadi Party, AIADMK, DMK, Congress and BJP equally. If there any sense of belonging in this country, we must address these issues. I have nothing to do with those who abuse us, saying it [the bill] is net patriotism. But certainly, net patriotism is better than net colonialism.

I’m not asking us to shut our doors, let me make that clear. I’m not telling Indians to use a Bhuvan that is not user friendly. I’m asking Government of India to make Bhuvan stronger than Google. Make Survey of India, through an agency, provide a better mapping service which is India-friendly and which is under control of Indian people.

So what do American technology companies have to do here?

It’s very simple. They have to work within the constitutional framework of the country. If you believe in our constitution, then they have to work within the constitutional framework. What the constitution says must be applied to their operation.

While they are working in the US, they have to follow US regulation. In China, you have to follow Chinese regulation. Why when in India, do they not follow India regulation? That’s my main concern.

Secondly, it has been proven beyond doubt that the content that they collect, they don’t guarantee that it will not fall into the hands of those who will use it for purposes that are not good for the country.

Every data of important people in India – whether you are Prime Minister, Chief Minister or Governor or military persons or bureaucrats. It is very easy for them to select 50,000 or 100,000 out of a billion people and monitor their profiles. They monitor everything.  We have to safeguard our country from any kind of data that can fall in the hands of foes of the nation. Pathankot is one example. Bombay is another example. David Headley and so on.

It is self defeating to say that “no, we can’t do this, it will be another kind of control over freedom of net”. The lives of people are at stake. And India is the biggest victim of terror. And we are alarmed at IS and other such agencies that are spreading their wings. Why should we be providing them with anything like that?

While national security concerns should be taken into account, the rules have been written in such a broad manner that it would drastically and negatively impact the functioning of individuals, non-profits, geodata start-ups and even academic research. For instance, ISRO’s Bhuvan runs on OpenStreetMap data but OpenStreetMap would be required to apply for a licence under the new bill…

We would be having a meeting on all these things. We will make sure that law-abiding companies who serve Indian interests… should and will not feel harassed. That is our basic concern. Rules and regulations should be encouraging to the freedom of Internet users.

Yes, that [bureaucracy] should not be there. Except ensuring security concerns are met, all other things should be flexible. All other things should be flexible. The bill should be a step that will enhance the joy of Internet use. The freedom of the Internet must be protected to the maximum extent. This is the right time for these concerns to be raised.

Let them [start-ups and India’s civil society] raise a hundred questions and let the Ministry of Home Affairs take all these questions and formulate a bill that is in the best interest of Indian net users.

The government is very, very receptive. They want to ensure a liberal bill, that will keep the menace of Internet colonialism and violation of Indian laws out.

This sort of digital protectionism behaviour, with specific focus on national security, is seen specifically in authoritarian countries such as China. Is it wise to take this approach?

The US does it. The US has more harsher laws. For the US, the security of their people is their prime concerns. They don’t allow such Internet vagabonds which have no republic.

But I don’t hear anyone uttering a word against US [the country’s digital stance]? Saying anything about China is like unfolding a flag of freedom. The US has harshest-ever laws in the world to protect the security of the country and the privacy of its people. But even here, the actions of the NSA show…privacy of people is secondary to security of people.

We have lost countless Indian citizens in terror attacks. They [the terrorists] have been using all these geospatial data. Our major concern should be that technology shouldn’t be an instrument in the hands of the devil.

Where do you see the balance between national security and citizen privacy? Especially in the context of India’s draft encryption bill and getting Silicon Valley-based companies to comply with law enforcement requests.

See, what I’m afraid is that there is a lobby in India which would create the vision and hypothetically create fear for everything that is being done to address Indian security concerns. These questions emanate from that lobby. Because this lobby doesn’t have an iota of respect for these security concerns and they laugh at it as if India is a banana republic and as if we shouldn’t be bothered about it.

Everything done in this direction is opposed [to the bill] and in the name of freedom, liberalism and possible harassment. Addressing security concerns doesn’t mean that India is becoming a  Internet policing state. Addressing security concerns mean India is becoming a  Internet responsible state.